Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., campaigns at Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Clarksville, Tenn. Blackburn is running against former Gov. Phil Bredesen for the U.S. Senate. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Tennessee faces defining choice in open US Senate contest

November 06, 2018 - 5:12 pm

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Democrat Phil Bredesen and Republican Marsha Blackburn are asking Tennessee voters to make polar-opposite statements Tuesday when they decide a critical, $85 million-and-counting U.S. Senate race.

A win for Bredesen would show Tennesseans prefer the popular former two-term governor's pledge to be independent in Washington, even though he's a Democrat in a red state that favored President Donald Trump by 26 percentage points in 2016. Bredesen was the last in his party to win statewide — his 2006 re-election —and would be the first Tennessee Democrat to win a Senate seat since Al Gore in 1990.

Victory for Blackburn, an eight-term congresswoman who often appears on Fox News, would validate her strong alignment with Trump in a state that has previously put more centrist senators in office, including the one she's trying to replace, retiring GOP Sen. Bob Corker. Blackburn also would break a barrier by becoming the first woman U.S. senator from Tennessee.

In Knoxville, husband and wife Wilburn Bunch and Felicia Bunch voted opposite of each other.

Felicia Bunch, a 32-year-old registered nurse, said she voted for Bredesen to "keep the checks and balances" rather than let the GOP control Congress and the White House.

Her husband, 38-year-old licensed practical nurse Wilburn Bunch, said he voted for Blackburn, adding that taxes were his most important issue.

"We're both very willing to hear the other side," Felicia Bunch said. "We do talk about (politics) a lot, but obviously we couldn't have a very happy marriage if we were going to let it tear us apart."

With the 51-49 Republican Senate majority hanging in the balance, the hard-fought race has attracted record-breaking campaign cash in Tennessee.

Bredesen's campaign has spent $15.2 million through mid-October, while outside groups have spent about $26.3 million so far to help him. Blackburn's campaign, meanwhile, has shelled out about $12 million through mid-October, and outside groups some $31.6 million for her bid so far.

Recent polls have ranged from showing the race is still a tossup to giving Blackburn a lead, but the amount of money and high-profile attention focused on Tennessee suggest that the race could swing either direction. Trump and Pence made a joint visit to Tennessee for a rally Sunday — their third Tennessee appearance each for Blackburn — and millions of dollars in new outside spending have recently funneled in from both sides.

Blackburn has sought to tie Bredesen to national Democrats whenever possible, telling the crowd on hand for the president's rally Sunday that if they "want to vote 'no' on Hillary Clinton and her cronies one more time, then stand with me."

Bredesen, who has endured GOP attacks for donating to the campaigns of Clinton and former President Barack Obama, has countered by saying he's not looking to go to Washington to be anyone's "lapdog." Ahead of Trump's visit Sunday, Bredesen said that though politics has become a "blood sport," whatever has been said during the campaign won't affect his eagerness to work with the president if he's elected. Bredesen has said he'll support or oppose Trump based on how his ideas affect Tennessee.

Term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, a popular, more moderate figure, downplayed Bredesen's message of political independence on NBC's "Meet the Press" this weekend, saying "the color of the jersey you're wearing up there is really important" in the U.S. Senate.

But Bredesen has found openings to break from national Democrats. He said he would have supported Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation despite the sexual assault allegations against him that further exposed the nation's political divide. And he pledged not to support Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to lead the Senate.

Groups aligned with Schumer and his GOP rival, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have shelled out more than $40 million combined in the race, the most among outsider spenders.

Meanwhile, two related political groups have spent $3.5 million to turn out the black vote for Bredesen.

Adrianne Shropshire of BlackPAC and Black Progressive Action Coalition said Tennessee is one of the groups' biggest investments this election cycle. The efforts include direct mail, radio ads, door knocking and phone calls, and they target Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville.

One of the radio spots reminds voters what's at stake for the Trump presidency, saying the GOP Senate majority hangs in the balance, and with it, the ability to keep "Trump's biased and extreme agenda in check."


Steve Megargee contributed from Knoxville.


For AP's complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: